Supreme Court Boosts States’ Rights to Control Guns
Policy + Politics

Supreme Court Boosts States’ Rights to Control Guns

REUTERS/Jeff Mitchell

By refusing to hear a Second Amendment challenge to a Connecticut gun law, the Supreme Court delivered an important and timely victory on Monday to gun control advocates who are now pressing their case on Capitol Hill. The law was passed originally in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of two dozen young children and adult educators.

The High Court let stand Connecticut’s stringent state law making it a crime to purchase or sell semi-automatic, military-style rifles with high-capacity magazines, such as the AR-15s and AK-47s. Those rifles are comparable to the weapon used by Omar Mateen, the homegrown terrorist and self-proclaimed ISIS supporter who shot and killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida June 12.

Related: Trump seeks to clarify comments on guns at Orlando nightclub

The ruling – which was in line with other recent lower court decisions giving states and localities wide berth to restrict gun sales -- will have little direct bearing on the outcome of votes in the Senate today. Even as Connecticut, New York and five other states and the District of Columbia have banned certain types of assault weapons, congressional Republicans, under enormous pressure from the gun lobby, have stubbornly opposed any renewal of a federal assault weapons ban that expired in September 2002.

It has been eight years since the Supreme Court recognized an individual’s right to keep guns at home for self-defense, in the District of Columbia v. Heller case, which eviscerated sections of the city’s unusually strict local law. Since then, however, the justices have said practically nothing about the scope of that right to own fire arms – leaving it up to the states and localities.

From a psychological standpoint, if no other, today’s Supreme Court ruling gives added impetus to a growing movement to address glaring inadequacies and loopholes in federal gun laws following an epidemic of mass killings on U.S. soil, at schools, universities, a black church, a military installation, businesses and now – most recently – the Pulse night club in Orlando. 

The Senate is scheduled to take up four major proposals today – two offered by Democrats seeking to actually toughen gun laws and two by Republicans designed primarily to deflect criticism of their party’s alliance with the gun lobby without appreciatively discouraging gun enthusiasts from continuing to purchase the highly lethal weapons.

Related: Here’s Why Gun Control Isn’t Going Anywhere in Congress

While it is unlikely that supporters will be able to muster the minimum 60 votes needed to reach cloture and pass any of the four measures, the action could end up sparking compromise between Democrats and more moderate Republicans. The Wall Street Journal reported that Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Kelly Ayotte of Maine, among others, will unveil a bipartisan proposal today that would keep guns out of the hands of suspected terrorists.

Democrats have been on the defensive for years in arguing in favor of gun control measures since a spate of gun legislation in the 1990s drew major backlash from the gun lobby and their allies on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, while President Obama repeatedly says he has grown weary of consoling the families of victims of mass gun shootings, congressional Republicans and the National Rifle Association continue to insist that curtailing gun sales would make no difference while abridging Americans Second Amendment rights.

However, national polls indicate that a majority of Americans believe gun laws should be stricter. And the horrific Orlando shootings quickly transformed the national debate from simply one of how far the federal government can go in limiting gun enthusiasts’ right to bear arms to what must be done to protect Americans from additional domestic terrorism.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other GOP leaders initially resisted the Democrats call for debate and action on new gun control measures after the mayhem in Orlando, arguing that the proposals being advanced – including those to prevent the sale of guns to people listed on government terrorist and “no-fly” lists – were impractical or misguided. 

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Democrats including presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, immediately seized on the Orlando tragedy as an opening to reframe the gun control debate as one of national security and anti-terrorism. Just a day after the night club shootings, Clinton told CNN that Mateen used a “weapon of war” to kill his victims. 

Surprisingly, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump briefly appeared to break with his party last week by signaling support for an outright ban on gun sales to people on terror watch lists. Trump announced that he would meet with NRA officials to discuss his views. 

However, in a telephone interview with CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, a chastened Trump seemed to change his mind. Rather than distancing himself from the gun lobby, Trump said he was working closely with the NRA and that the organization “has the best interests of our country” at heart. 

Murphy, who joined the Senate only days after the Sandy Hook shootings, forced McConnell’s hand to allow votes today by staging a nearly 15-hour late night filibuster. Murphy is calling for extending requirements for personal background checks of prospective gun buyers from just gun stores and other retailers to on-line sites and gun shows. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WVA) and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) pressed for a similar, bipartisan plan in 2013 but failed to gather enough votes to break a filibuster. 

Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is co-sponsoring an amendment that would authorize the attorney general to deny firearms or explosives to any suspected terrorist whose name turns up on a government terrorist list or “no-fly” list. Mateen was investigated by the FBI in 2013 and 2014 and was placed on the terror watch list, according to media reports. However, his name was subsequently removed from the list after federal investigators failed to come up with evidence linking him to specific terrorist activities or wrongdoing. 

Related: Top Advisor Says Trump Might Support New Gun Restrictions 

A Quinnipiac University poll that was conducted after the mass shootings by a Muslim couple in San Bernardino last December found that 83 percent of voters were in favor of banning gun purchases for people on a government terrorist watch list. However, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) argues that Feinstein’s amendment might unfairly prevent people from buying a gun if they were mistakenly placed a terrorist watch list, or mistakenly suspected of being linked to terrorist groups. 

Veteran Republican Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) is backing the fourth amendment that will be considered today. That one would boost funding for the agency that runs background checks for gun purchasers. But it would not expand mandatory background checks for prospective gun buyers seeking weapons on the internet or at unlicensed and unregulated gun shows.